Claire Morrison is a lifelong dog lover who no longer owns one but misses the comfort of a pet. At age 66, she is also a double amputee and blind.
Even so, Morrison, a former attorney and risk management pro, is figuring out, with vivid memories — and lumps of clay — a way to bring dogs back into her life.
"It is easiest to explain everything by saying that in 1995 I became ill with polyarteritisnodosa. It is something that affects the arteries by stirring up the system, and in my case, the white blood cells got all energized to a point where they thought there was a problem and clogged it," she explains.
When she got sick, she moved from Oak Park to Forest Park, where she found accessible living suitable for her situation until she lost all of her vision over time. So she successfully adopted out her beloved toy poodle, Bear, and relocated to the Oak Park Arms in 2010.
Now on Tuesdays she is wheeled up the portable ramp at the Lifelong Learning Center (also known as the Senior Citizen Center of Oak Park-River Forest) and greeted with a lick and a tail wag by Oliver, a Papillon pooch, who is the center's mascot, and Morrison's "part-time dog."
With Oliver at her side, she teams up with co-instructor Marcia Palazzolo in the afternoon ceramics class. Collaboratively they have made a menagerie of ceramic dogs, a sitting giraffe, pinch pots, a train with cars, and various kinds of houses, including an ornamental ruin for use in an aquarium. But her dogs are especially popular so when asked, Morrison shares them with peers who have become her "patrons."
"I just give her a lump of clay and she works it until it is shaped like a Twinkie, and we go from there," says Palazzolo, a former president of the Oak Park Art League.
When she wanted to make a stretching dog, she remembered how her former dog, Thoreau, a soft-haired terrier, looked and felt, pushing and pulling the clay until it felt right.
"She can see inside her head, I think, remember how things used to look, and translates that into something concrete in front of her," says Ann Primack, the ceramics class instructor. "In that way, she can share her creative self with other people, which is really what it's all about."
One of the inexplicable things that happens with Morrison's dogs, adds Palazzolo, is the face.
"Well, all of my dogs do have sort of a smug smile," Morrison interjects.
Up next, she plans to make a three-color patterned bowl with a handle, and a matching cup and plate to hold the gumbo she will make in her new crockpot.
"Clay just feels good in my hands, and I can feel when it is becoming a body, forming a leg. The fact that it turns out to be something at the end is very rewarding," she explains, reaching down again to pet Oliver, her part-time dog.